Sunday, April 29, 2018

"Got My Mind Set On" Making Wisecracks About George Harrison's (And Jeff Lynne's?) Left-Field Comeback Hit

Here was the sound of me, upon discovering a musical fact, at some point in the mid-'90s, having become extremely aware of the Beatles since the '80s, but not having been the least bit aware of the Beatles while growing up during the '80s:

"Wait, really? 'Got My Mind Set On You' was a George Harrison solo song??"

The day I discovered that ... was almost as strange a day as the day I discovered that "Too Late for Goodbyes" was a Julian Lennon song. The real twist, of course, is that "Got My Mind Set On You" wasn't by George Harrison, exactly, but first things first. Back in 1988, when I heard "Got My Mind Set On You" on the radio about twenty times a day, I just assumed it was some random '80s hit from some random '80s dude. It might have been nice if someone would have explained to me - a parent, a teacher, a friend, anybody - that this was a massive comeback single by a member of the greatest group of all time. But no. No one bothered to explain that to me.

Let's back up a bit. By 1982, England's answer to Ravi Shankar had fallen a long way from the heights of All Things Must Pass. Gone Troppo peaked at a mere #108 in the US, and didn't even chart in the UK. Gone Troppo? How about just ... "Gone"? So he took a break, and in retrospect it could have very easily turned into a long one. Hey, why release another half-assed batch of meandering soft rock that nobody's going to buy when you can produce Terry Gilliam movies, drive race cars, and sip tea with Eric Clapton and Vishnu every afternoon? You know, maybe the days of being a top-tier recording artist were behind him. He didn't like touring. He didn't like having to do promotional interviews where nine out of every ten questions consisted of Beatles probing. No shame in hanging it up.

Meanwhile, a certain former leader of the Electric Light Orchestra with a penchant for Olivia Newton-John soundtracks was experiencing a similarly awkward career transition, although he didn't fall quite as far as George did (to be fair, he hadn't reached quite the same heights as George had either). By 1986's Balance of Power, ELO had ceased to become, shall we say, a "Livin' Thing" and was more or less an orchestra of one. Zen koan: What's the sound of one violin clapping? Guess it was time for Jeff Lynne to conjure some "Strange Magic" of his own and figure out where the hell he was going to take his florescent laser show next.

Then, like a bolt out of the blue, a thought came to him that he simply couldn't get out of his head: why rip off the Beatles when you could ... collaborate with one? If only I had thought of that. In reality, Lynne may have done more for George than George did for him, serving as the unlikely catalyst for a wealth of new songwriting activity and bringing back the much-needed enthusiasm for music-making that had been absent from George for almost the entire decade. I wouldn't say that Cloud Nine is near the level of All Things Must Pass, but ... how can I put this? It's better than any 1987 album by George Harrison had any right to be. Personal favorites of mine include "Fish on the Sand," "Just for Today," and "Devil's Radio," which received their share of radio play, but it's the two big official singles with two big official videos (well, make that three?) that everybody remembers.

Question: Is there anyone here who feels like knocking "When We Was Fab"? Anybody? Speak now or forever hold your obnoxiousness. I dare anyone to knock a video that features:
  • 1:43 Jeff Lynne playing the world's longest violin 
  • 2:00 Some random guy in a walrus suit who George claimed in interviews was Paul McCartney, just to confuse the hell out of people (spoiler: it probably wasn't him) 
  • 2:23 Paul Simon pushing a produce cart 
  • 2:41 Elton John tossing coins in George's busking cup 
  • 2:48 Ringo carrying the world's longest keyboard, with help from ... Ringo? 

Of course, Mr. Starkey contributed more than mere roadie assistance; his tight, tom-tom heavy turn on the kit received an admirably non-mushy treatment from Lynne. One might have thought that the shamelessly Beatle-referencing single would have been the album's runaway smash (as the Lennon tribute "All Those Years Ago" had been from Somewhere In England), but "When We Was Fab" only hit #23 in the US and #25 in the UK. Clearly a younger, less nostalgic generation didn't find it nearly as fab as the other major single from Cloud Nine, which boasted one of the most intricate, verbose choruses in all of '80s pop:
I've got my mind set on you
I've got my mind set on you
I've got my mind set on you
I've got my mind set on you
Hmmm. So what he's saying is ... he's got his mind set on her. Interesting. Now, you may be tempted to take George to task for phoning it in on these lyrics, but "Got My Mind Set On You" could very well be, aside from "Tainted Love," the most famous '80s hit that most people have no idea was actually a cover of an obscure '60s soul song. And unlike Gloria Jones, James Ray didn't even get to date that guy from T. Rex a decade later: he died when he was 23. Did you know that George was the first Beatle to visit the US? In 1963 he took a trip to see his sister Louise in Illinois, months before "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was even a glint in Ed Sullivan's eye. Naturally, he raided the local record store and bought obscurities such as the Donays' "Devil in Her Heart" (which the Beatles quickly covered, with George singing lead) as well as an album by James Ray, whose only major hit ended up being "If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody." Let's see what we've got here:

Whoa. Ray's version is a little more ... smoky. He sounds like he's filling in for a gig that Sam Cooke or Ben E. King bailed on. The YouTube comments section is littered with people claiming that this original version is "way better" than George's. Well, it's certainly more obscure. At any rate, once Jeff Lynne got his hands on this sucker, he slicked it up like nobody's business. I kind of wish someone had imposed an "acoustic guitar overdub limit" on Lynne's late '80s work (*cough* Full Moon Fever *cough*), and the whole thing kind of sounds like Otis Redding trapped to death in a tin can, but you have to give it to the two of them: the cover does have a certain ... something (pun intended?).

The fact that George merely covered the song did not, however, stop Weird Al from mocking his version mercilessly with "(This Song's Just) Six Words Long," a deep cut from Even Worse. I'm tempted to point out to Weird Al that "(This Song's Just) Six Words Long" is actually a lot longer than six words, but perhaps ... that's part of the joke?

The truth is, "Got My Mind Set On You" was a song so nice, they made a video for it twice! The first version features a bunch of trendily-dressed teens in a state-of-the-art arcade, although for some reason the skinny blonde gum-chewing girl in a sleeveless crop top and giant earrings is peering into ... what is that thing? A kinescope? A Nickelodeon? And guess who's inside? George Harrysong! Meanwhile, a greaser kid in jeans and a white t-shirt (with the sleeves rolled up?) has, so it would appear, "got his eyes set on" the blonde, although he plays it cool by trying to grab a stuffed animal out of one of those stupid claw machines. Somehow, he apparently becomes the first person to ever grab an item from that machine successfully, but just as he's reeling in the porcelain ballerina for himself, he accidentally drops it ... into the black and white footage of George and Jeff Lynne on stage, where the ballerina promptly springs to life and George tries to pretend he's into the idea of making these stupid MTV videos. Finally, after several kicks to the machine, the ballerina drops from the stage and ends up in the kid's hands.

I guess somebody (possibly George?) took a look at that video and thought, "You know ... I think we can do better." This leads us to the second - and more widely known - clip. At the start of this one, George sits down in the middle of what appears to be a typical study in an ornate English mansion and begins to strum a guitar. A fire is roaring in the fireplace. A caged bird on the right is the only sign of life. Suddenly, at about the 0:32 mark, the surrounding furniture starts to behave a little ... curiously. However, despite activity that would turn most observers' faces deathly pale, George hardly seems to notice and keeps crooning away merrily. And who knew he was such an incredible breakdancer? I have to say, the duo of mounted moose's head and mounted boar's head really nail those backing vocals, and let's also give it up for the gopher's mean pipe playing. "Now this," George probably thought, "is my kind of video."

So George, at the tender age of 45, unexpectedly had a #1 hit, and everyone was happy for him - probably even happier for him than he was for himself. Cloud Nine turned out to be both a comeback and the launching pad for a new adventure with some old pals. See, while recording a Cloud Nine b-side, George and Jeff ended up inviting a few friends over, and those friends happened to be more famous and more talented than my friends (no offense). Basically, the Cloud Nine sessions unexpectedly gave birth to the Traveling Wilburys. However, while that particular collaboration grabbed the headlines, it was not the most momentous one of George's late '80s, post-Cloud Nine career. I mean hey, making records with Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan must have been a real thrill for the guy, but it clearly paled in comparison to another collaboration that would soon follow. No, George's comeback wouldn't be truly complete until he teamed up with one of the greatest musical artists he'd ever worked with, and would ever work with - a legend more legendary than Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan combined:

Belinda Carlisle.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

"Faith": Too Much Butt, Not Enough Rockabilly

In October 1987, the world was waiting for words of healing, words of insight. The globe cried out for a single phrase that would reach into the souls of the lost children like a thousand beams of holy divination. One man was ready to rise to the occasion. One man had been to the wilderness and had returned with the wisdom that spoke to the age's deepest wounds. Here ... were this man's words:

"I've got to have faith-uh-faith-uh-faith-ah!"

Full confession: I think the compositional elements of "Faith" are strong. The lyrics, if not overly-complex, are effective and memorable. The chord progression is pleasing. The usage of the Bo Diddley beat in a dance-pop context is surprising and fresh. I think the song deserved to be a big hit.


I've always sort of vaguely felt that "Faith" doesn't quite ... groove the way it should. It doesn't quite move the way it should. In other words, I'm not sure it was recorded as well as it could have been. It's too stiff. It's too meek. I sensed this as a kid. I sensed it when I listened to Faith in the late '90s. I sense it today. I recognize that George was aiming for a rockabilly "pastiche" that wouldn't necessarily be "actual rockabilly", and yet ... the song doesn't ... rock enough. It sounds like he just recorded a demo version with a cheap drum machine on it and thought, "Eh, good enough." With a ballad like "One More Try," you can get away with that, but sometimes you need to actually rock to do a rock song, you know? I feel like "Faith" should sound more like, say, Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." Now there's a rockabilly pastiche that really rocks. Instead, it came out more like an off-brand "Footloose." For instance, when some actual guitars show up for an actual, supremely twangy guitar solo in the middle, it makes me think, "Yeah! That's what this baby needs right here." In summary, I feel like the song was sort of a missed opportunity, in a way that his other big hits were not. But I'm not too worked up about it.

And I certainly can't complain about the vocals. George was one of those rare singers who could inject a bit of silliness into his singing without undermining the emotional intensity of the performance. My two favorite bits would have to be the "Bey-bae-uh!" at 1:50, followed by the "Mm-beyyyyyyyyyyyy-bae-uh!" at 1:59. Too bad nobody bothered to hire a drummer.

Then there is the infamous video, which may be better known by its alternate title, "George Michael's Butt." Yes, George Michael's butt appears in a starring role. If your idea of a great music video is one that features many, many shots of George Michael's jiggling hind quarters, then this, my friends, is your Citizen Kane. Granted, there are also numerous shots of the singer's other body parts, including his legs, his crotch, his glove-encased hand (question: Can you play guitar with a glove on your hand?), and even, occasionally, his face. My understanding is that George is extremely sexy in this video, but I'll have to take heterosexual women and homosexual men at their word. I feel like the video might have been just one big opportunity for George to turn himself on. Question: Do you think George Michael jerked off to his own videos?

Here's what I want to know: what's with the leather jacket that says "BSA" on it? I associate that acronym with a certain youth group that was not terribly fond of men of George's particular persuasion. Talk about a subversive political statement slipping under the radar! In the end, the budget for the "Faith" video must have stood in stark contrast to the amount of money that the song ultimately earned, as the tune with a video consisting of George Michael's butt wiggling in a white room next to a jukebox became the #1 Billboard hit of 1988. Perhaps the blow-dried record label skeptics, viewing the rough cut in an air-freshened conference room, just needed to have a little more  ... "faith" in their recording artist's butt. Professor Higglediggle writes:
Michael had confronted the hyperpotent reductivism of Judeo-Christian dialectics in prior works ("Last Christmas," "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)") but with "Faith" he (re)contextualized the (pre)existing symbolic domain in slightly more bold, if equally problematic, terms. With its conflation of the spiritual and carnal, the song situates itself in an almost Augustinian duality, Michael observing "When that love comes down without devotion" he recognizes the papal necessity of "showin' [her/him] the door," although he acknowledges the binary co-optation of gender norms with the doubtful aside "Well it takes a strong man baby," as if the "strong man" and his own marginalized position were ethically incompatible. The video renders this moral failure in stark visual terms by contrasting the spectral symbol of the old order (the metal crucifix dangling from Michael's right ear lobe) with the earthly symbol of the new order (Michael's gluteus maximus).

Sunday, April 1, 2018

"Hungry Eyes" And Saxophone Thighs AKA Eric Carmen Loses Control, Wins "Poofiest '80s Hair" Prize

Though my Cheesy '80s Nostalgia Club membership card might be revoked by this admission, I have never seen, nor have I ever been particularly inclined to watch, Dirty Dancing. It's a ... what's the word? What do they call 'em? It's a ... CHICK FLICK. That's what it is. I knew the word would come to me eventually. And if anyone ever gives me a hard time for refusing to see it, I'll just tell them sassily, "Nobody puts Little Earl in a corner."

Sure, I enjoyed "I've Had the Time of My Life" when I was a youth, but now I just associate it with the kind of people who like Dirty Dancing. I mean, I'm not one of those people. I only like cheesy '80s music, not cheesy '80s movies. Jeez. Also, throughout the Summer of '88, I remember hearing the Top 40 station play this uptempo dance song, "Do You Love Me?," by some group called the Contours, and I thought it sounded slightly odd and out of step with the other hits of the era, without knowing quite why.

Another fact that escaped me at the time was that "She's Like the Wind" was not sung by some random generic pop singer, but by ... wait, really? That was Patrick Swayze? Singing? You might as well have told me that Jennifer Beals actually sang "Flashdance ... What a Feeling." Let's face it: he's not half-bad! I mean, he's not amazing. He's bland, but he's not any less bland than his '80s Top 40 contemporaries - a small victory of sorts for all you actors/secretly aspiring singers everywhere. More impressive is the fact that he co-wrote the song. And how would you like to be Wendy Fraser? Your biggest taste of fame was being "featured" on a Patrick Swayze single? Guess she'll take it.

But enough of that guy. Eric Carmen's got something to tell you. He's got this feelin' that won't subside. He looks at you and he fantasizes. I've got a question. What the fuck are "hungry eyes"? I didn't realize that eyes needed sustenance. I'm pretty sure that the "appetite" of a person's eyes, if such a desire existed, would hardly vary from one moment to the next. I mean, if someone could have "hungry eyes," then could they have "stuffed" eyes? Eyes that wouldn't even have room for one more thin mint wafer? And how exactly does one feed "hungry" eyes? With eye droplets? Take your eyes to Taco Bell? What happens if your eyes get hungry at 3:00 a.m.? Well, Jack In The Box is open all night I guess.

In 1987, the biological impracticalities of ocular nutrition were probably the last thing on Eric Carmen's mind; he just wanted a hit. You see, back in the man's younger days (i.e. 1972), Carmen was like a tougher, harder-rocking version of Paul McCartney. If anyone out there comes across a more perfect (or lustier) '70s pop song than the Raspberries' "Go All the Way," please send it to me. However, it turns out that, when he sang "Go All the Way," what he actually meant was, "Go all the way ... into shameless pop schmaltz." Sure, everyone's allowed a little artistic license here and there, and you can't expect a guy to repeat himself his whole career, but ... "All By Myself"? It's like he concluded that he was ripping off the wrong McCartney. Instead of ripping off rocking McCartney, he needed to rip off wimpy McCartney! Because nothing screams out "hit song" like Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2. Don't wanna be "all by [yourself] anymore"? Then why did you leave the Raspberries, buddy? Or maybe they left him - and judging by "All By Myself," one might understand why. And so Eric McCartmen continued to churn out a string of borderline Yacht Rock singles throughout the late '70s. By 1987, the guy was so washed up that he was starting to become an environmental beach hazard to seagulls, like those little plastic six-pack rings. Ah, but as with so many other singers who found themselves stranded on the Island of '70s Pop Has-Beens, a film soundtrack finally sailed to Carmen's rescue.

The list of sleazy '80s hits is a long one, but "Hungry Eyes" may very well be the sleaziest of the sleaziest. There's something about the syrupy combo of synthesized bass line, imitation vibraphone, and Rafferty-tastic sax solo that makes me feel like I just left a strip club that closes at 4:00 a.m. - and stumbled into the strip club across the street that closes at 5:00 a.m. The lyrics are voyeuristic and pervy and not particularly ashamed of it. And the video. Sweet Jesus, the video. Check out our man Eric at the commencement, lounging back in a dark warehouse, getting off on Dirty Dancing footage. The reel winds through the projector to its conclusion. He needs a new distraction. He begins dreaming of a sultry model in a low-cut dress, picking flowers. Then she's suddenly being projected onto the wall ... no, wait, she's there in the flesh, moving closer to Eric! Is she ... real? She brushes his cheeks with her hands. If looks could talk, Eric's stunned reaction at 0:58 would say, "Whoa. Dude. Who was that?" He pulls a Keanu. She walks away, turns around, and then she ... disappears! She's a ghost, Eric. You've got the hots for a ghost. I hate to break it to you, but those hungry eyes are going to need to find a more corporeal meal.

At around 1:57, Ghost Babe suddenly reappears in a blue-tinted rain forest wearing a new gold (but equally low-cut) dress. At 2:46, we realize that, not only is she a sexy Ghost Babe, but she can play a mean sax! There's one final twist. Eric sits down at an outdoor cafe and sees Ghost Babe leaning against a building, her glove-encased arms wrapped around a rather un-photogenic fellow who looks like he just forked over an impressive sum of money to be with her. He turns his head to kiss her, and when he turns back around, Ghost Babe is suddenly ... some Asian chick? I'm telling you man, too many lonely nights watching Dirty Dancing in a dark warehouse can take you to some weird places. Luis Bunuel, eat your heart out. Favorite YouTube comments:
Jeez that girl can blow a horn...

You know shlt gets serious when babe busts out the saxophone.

i dont think the lady playing the saxophone was the in studio performer

it may be just me but it does not look like that chick is actually playing that sax

she could've at least moved her fingers hahaha

Amazng that she can change the notes of the saxophone just by swaying to the tune without changing her fingering

Every woman in the world young or old should be offered the opportunity to look like they are playing a saxophone to this song with a city night green screen!

director: "you know what guys, let's have the model do the sax solo, why the hell not? And we'll shoot upskirt to distract everyone from how absurd it is, even in 1987."

This song has to be inspired by the way my uncle's dog looks at me while eating pizza.

I get weird looks in the bakery when I sing this to donuts. I don't care, it's how I feel.

I didn't know Robert Downy Jr. had such a great voice.

I want to hear this song covered by Eric Cartman.

this song makes me think of cannibalism. I can picture a serial killer playing this song while he devours human flesh. it's creepy.
Well, when you're hot, you're hot, and Carmen didn't pussyfoot around. Though "Make Me Lose Control" followed "Hungry Eyes" by mere months, apparently someone had fed the Chia Pet on his head in the meantime. It's like a whole new 'do - or two of them! The song's main bass-and-piano riff is like a shameless cross between the chord progression from "Twist and Shout" and the bossa nova rhythm from "Under the Boardwalk," with a chorus that pays homage to (rips off?) the Righteous Brothers' "You're My Soul and My Heart's Inspiration." As I understand it, Mike Love, I assume fresh from a late night "Kokomo" recording session, also makes an appearance on backing vocals, giving the tune some much-needed "shameless pseudo-Happy Days Baby Boomer pandering" cred. Of course, nothing compliments '50s rock 'n' roll nostalgia like ... glossy '80s production! And we know how all those classic oldies always featured a tight a capella rendering of the chorus followed by ... heavily phased supersonic turbo-powered studio effects (at 4:06). Take it away, YouTubers:
He lost control of that

Dude has a serious case of Lady Hair! And spray tan was not even invented yet.

No chick wants a dude with better hair than her !

I bet that hair can cure cancer.

That hair style alone caused the ozone layer to be depleted by 1% that year.

Yeah I think if Eddie Money & Richard Marx's mullets had gotten together & also gotten it on, Eric Carmen's hairdo is what their baby would look like. Haha.

he looks a little bit like Billy Joel with Tina Turners wig